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Mogul Mowgli

Directed by Bassam Tariq, co-written by and starring Riz Ahmed

BFI, 2020

Review by Jonny Wright

Riz Ahmed’s production company Left Handed Films recently co-published ‘The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion’ in response to what Ahmed calls the ‘toxic portrayal’ of Muslims on screen. Mogul Mowgli, which Ahmed stars in, co-writes and co-produces, provides a perfect real-life blueprint for what a more inclusive cinematic landscape could look like. Ahmed plays a rapper Zed (a family member reminds him his name’s an anglicised version of Zaheer) who returns from New York, having spent the last two years building his career there, to visit his parents in London before embarking on his first European tour. His stay becomes longer than expected when he collapses outside a mosque, having snuck out to smoke a spliff.

Ahmed is brilliant in the lead role. Recently nominated for an Oscar for Sound Of Metal, Ahmed is once again sensational in this film. He raps with confidence (no doubt helped by the fact that he MCs in real life under the name Riz MC), bordering on arrogance, but the vulnerability in his performance shines through. He perfectly portrays a cynical, seasoned artist whose assurance masks a desperation to succeed and an insecurity from no longer being the new kid on the block in an industry that values youth. Ahmed’s performance is perfectly complemented by Nabhaan Rizwan who plays the cocksure young pretender, RPG, with aplomb. However, what is refreshing about this film is that the performances don’t have to paper over cracks in the writing.

Mogul Mowgli showcases Ahmed’s multiple talents. The script, which he co-wrote with the film’s director, Bassam Tariq, is excellent. The dialogue is natural and switches between English and Urdu with fluent ease, helping us to explore the dichotomy of a modern British Pakistani household rarely seen with such intimacy in British drama. When Zed returns from New York his mum burns peppers to ward off evil spirits; his dad believes cupping will cure his medical problems. However, these ‘quirks’ don’t define his parents. It’s more nuanced than the cliché of backwards parents from the old country versus modern British Muslim. There is also a lovely mirroring between Zed’s father and Zed as both are accused of appropriating Black culture; Zed’s father transgresses by owning a Black hair shop and Zed by rapping. It’s all done with care and consideration.

Underlying everything are the after-effects of the British partition of India. It’s a partition which Zed’s dad lived through (with recollections of being on a train full of dead bodies) but has yet to come to terms with. It’s commonly held that we inherit the sins of our fathers, but as immigrants it is often the sins of our mother country that we inherit. The 1947 partition still causes ruptures in British families today, and the legacy of colonialism leaves us having to publish our own blueprints. Mogul Mowgli is a great example of the inclusive Muslim stories out there. I just hope that not every Muslim creative has to have the cachet and Oscar-level acting talent of Riz Ahmed to get those stories told.